‘The future of Skyrim, even the Empire itself, hangs in the balance as they wait for the prophesised Dragonborn to come; a hero born with the power of The Voice, and the only one who can stand amongst the dragons.‘
The Elder Scrolls series of games is one that has attracted many dedicated fans over the years, myself included. The huge open world gameplay in a fantasy world is something that has been tried by other studios, but nobody has come close to creating a similarly immersive experience. Skyrim, the 5th game in the series is due to come out in November, and Bethseda have been demoing footage behind closed doors at QuakeCon and PAX Prime to help build some buzz. The footage has recently been released to the public, so I thought I’d dive in and have a look at what Game Director Todd Howard has to show us about one of my most anticipated games of 2011.
Note: I’ll cover some of the highlights of each video, with my opinions on various features, but you should watch the videos if you want to see everything.
Todd jumps us straight into the world with an explanation of how the team at Bethseda have taken the many lessons they’ve learnt from making Oblivion and Fallout 3 and incorprated them into the company’s new Creation Engine for Skyrim. Straight away, it’s obvious that these lessons have payed off. The world of Skyrim is simply stunning, and the more time I spend watching this video, the more I just want to dive in and explore everything it has to offer. Exploration has always been one of the great parts of this series, and the ability to go anywhere that you can see adds a huge amount to a player’s immersion in the world.
Todd soon manages to come across some nasty wolves and takes the opportunity to show off Skyrim’s new two handed system. Each hand can have a weapon or spell equipped, and if you have the same spell equipped on both hands you will get a more powerful version. This feature looks to add a lot of customisation to player combat styles, and the system looks really easy to use. In fact, the whole menu system in general is a far cry from the clunky system that was found in Oblivion. Gone are the aggravating nested menus and faux medieval script, replaced by clean simple menus that provide everything you need in an easily accessible form. Also, you can examine every item in your inventory as high detail 3D models, rotating and zooming however you like.
The visuals of the skill system are worth a mention as well, using a stunning starsign motif that ties into the lore of the Elder Scrolls world. Each skill has a starsign associated with it, and new stars light up as you unlock points within that skill tree. This is a great way to make something that is often boring much more interesting for the player without taking away any of the functionality. It’s little touches like this that make a good game into a great game.
One thing that really impressed me was the peek at the conversation system that we had when Todd talked to a blacksmith in a small village. Rather than being stuck in place while talking to the NPC, Todd was able to pick his conversation option and move around the area with the blacksmith moving his head to follow Todd while he talked. The blacksmith also kept on with his work rather than instantly jumping into a predetermined conversation animation, something that is always jarring for a player.
The second video takes us out of the wide open spaces and into one of the game’s many handcrafted dungeons. The visuals inside the dungeon aren’t quite as impressive as the mountainous landscape we’ve been seeing so far, but they still look great. There is some great lighting on display, the reflections in particular are great. There is a beautiful moment where Todd throws a spell down a corridor and we see the soft blue light move over everything seamlessley.
There is a lot more combat on display here, with a montage of various spiders and monsters being slain with different combinations of weapons and spells. There were a lot more cool finishing moves to see, and at first I was worried that they might become an annoyance after you’ve seen them a few times, but in general these animations are fairly short and integrated nicely into the combat. The melee combat still seems a little awkard at points, but it’s likely that things will feel much more smooth when you’re in the players chair. Todd showed us a brief glimpse of some stealthy gameplay, taking down a couple of enemies with his bow while hiding in the shadows. The intake of breath as the character stilled himself for an accurate shot was a great touch, something that adds an extra level of immersion for players.
There was some great non-combat stuff on display here as well, such as traps and a Clairvoyance spell that shows the player a glowing blue trail leading to their next objective. I find this a useful feature in any game, although I know that some people feel that it’s a bit too much hand-holding. But the simple answer is, don’t use the spell if you don’t want to, craft your own play experience. Todd also demonstrated how the 3D inventory system is much more than a gimmick. When he got to a dorr door that was locked by both a key and a simple pattern puzzle, he was able to examine the key to find the right pattern to open the door. I’m sure that there are a lot of quests using this mechanic, it adds a whole new level of depth to inventory management, usually one of the most annoying parts of any RPG.
In the third and final video, Todd takes us back outside to the tundra, where we see a city in the distance. He starts talking about all the usual stuff that a player will be able to find there, but for some reason the screen keeps shaking. Enter a pack of wooly mammoths accompanied by giants with clubs. There is such a level of impact to this scene, it feels extremely real despite some less than perfect textures on the mammoths. Then, because Elder Scrolls games are all about doing whatever the hell you want, Todd decides to attack one, enraging both the mammoth and its giant guardians.
I was beginning to think that Todd was about to get completely pwned and show us the death mechanics when all of a sudden a freakin’ dragon swoops down out of the sky and picks up the Giant. After the dragon ditches the now dead giant, it comes for Todd. The battle gives us a great sense of the world, with NPC guards showing up to attack the dragon while Todd danced around attacking whenever he could, this fight looked tough. Just when you think everything is done and dusted, another dragon turns up and Todd is forced to use one of the new mechanics of the game, the words of power. He uses the final level of one power word called storm call, and the effect is dramatic to say the least. The entire world changes almost in an instant. Heavy clouds and fog roll in, rain starts pouring down and lightning tears the sky. The visuals for this were amazing, and gave a sense of how powerful the player will feel in this game. With dragons appearing all over the place, we’re going to need that power.
Overall, this footage has really heightened my excitement for the game. It looks as if Bethseda has taken everything that didn’t work in Oblivion out, and improved massively on the rest. This footage only scratches the surface of what is sure to be hundreds of hours of gameplay, and that’s not even including the modding scene. I’m really looking forward to this game and will be providing a full review when it’s out (although that might be a fair while later since I’m probably going to disappear for a while). You can find more information over at the official website.
What I Liked - DRAGONS. Great new menu system. Very impressive visuals in almost all areas of the game. Two-Handed system looks fun and easy to use.
What I Didn’t Like - Combat still looks a little clunky at times. Some poor textures in places.
Anticipation Level – 5 out of 5 (Give me this NOW!)